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(1998) (Jessica Lange, Elisabeth Shue) (R)

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Drama/Comedy: On the eve of the French Revolution, a middle-aged spinster sets forth a plan of revenge upon those who've wronged her and her hopes for love.
In mid 19th century Paris, Bette Fisher (JESSICA LANGE) is an earthy, middle-aged, and decidedly bitter seamstress who's always lived in the shadow of her more beautiful cousin, Adeline Hulot (GERALDINE CHAPLIN). When Adeline dies, Bette hopes to take her place as the lady of the wealthy Hulot household. Unfortunately for her, Adeline's widower, Hector Hulot (HUGH LAURIE), now finds himself free to spend more time with his mistress, Jenny Cadine (ELISABETH SHUE), a bawdy burlesque show star, and thus assigns Bette the duty of attending to his daughter, Hortense (KELLY MACDONALD).

Accustomed to this sort of treatment, Bette accompanies Hortense who -- when not refusing the marriage proposals from the likes of the ultra wealthy Mayor Crevel (BOB HOSKINS) -- listens to Bette's stories about her secret love for Wenceslas (ADEN YOUNG), a poor and starving artist. Feeling sorry for him and realizing this might be her last chance at love, Bette tends to the much younger sculptor's artistic needs and turns him into an up and coming sensation.

Hortense, however, decides that he sounds like the perfect husband for her, and thus sets out to snatch him away, an opportunity he doesn't spurn, especially since she's from high society. Unfortunately, the Hulot family is deep in debt -- a fact that continuously worries son Victorin (TOBY STEPHENS). To make matters worse, though, Bette is understandably seething with anger that's aimed at Hortense and sets into motion a devious and complicated plan that she hopes will return Wenceslas to her, and ruin everyone else who's wronged her in the past.

Only if they're fans of someone in the cast or of period "dramedies."
For sexuality.
  • JESSICA LANGE plays a middle-aged spinster who decides to ruin the lives of those who've wronged her in one way or another.
  • ELISABETH SHUE plays a self-centered burlesque performer who uses her body and bawdy behavior to make a living, and who has an affair with a married man.
  • HUGH LAURIE plays a recently widowed man who spends the family fortune on his long- standing relationship with his mistress.
  • KELLY MACDONALD plays a young and spoiled woman who purposefully steals Bette's would-be boyfriend and sleeps with him (not seen, but she does get pregnant).
  • ADEN YOUNG plays a poor and starving artist who becomes arrogantly self-centered, and has an affair while married.


    OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
    Based on Honore de Balzac's 150 plus year old novel that exemplifies the old saying, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, "Cousin Bette" is a deliciously wicked, but ultimately cold and detached tale of revenge. In the true spirit of centuries old French farces, the story features plenty of backstabbing, elaborate schemes and comical bawdiness. Despite its period setting, however, the film's universal themes of love, greed and revenge -- when combined with the first rate cast -- easily makes this story approachable to modern day audiences.

    Six-time Oscar nominee Jessica Lange (with victories for "Tootsie" and "Blue Sky") is quite good as the homely spinster. Having already cut her teeth on the vindictive mother-in-law character, Martha, from this year's "Hush," Lange seems well prepared for the role. Fortunately, she underplays the part in comparison to that earlier work. Dressed and made up to conceal her natural beauty and radiance, Lange is believable as the woman who can no longer contain the years of pent up neglect suffered at the hands of those around her.

    Oscar nominee Elisabeth Shue ("Leaving Las Vegas) is delightful in her role as the goofy and bawdy burlesque performer. While her bubbly, million dollar smile has occasionally worked against certain characters she's tried to play, here she wonderfully uses it to her advantage.

    Other supporting performers, including Bob Hoskins ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit") in a small, but fun role, Hugh Laurie ("101 Dalmatians") delivering a subtly comic performance highly reminiscent of the late David Niven, and Aden Young ("Paradise Road") as the suddenly arrogant, heartthrob artist, are all enjoyable -- even if they're not always believable as French citizens.

    Despite the elaborate and ultimately "successful" revenge scheme that Bette sets forth, however, the proceedings aren't exactly fun or wicked enough to make this film as much a crowd pleaser at it could or should be. That, added to Bette's aloof characteristics, prevents the audience from completely sympathizing with her and rooting for her success.

    Also troublesome is that while a few obstacles arise during her elaborate plan, none are difficult for her to overcome. Displaying a near clinical iciness that isn't taken far enough to be considered camp, Bette's behavior never elicits any worry from the audience that her scheme might not work. Therefore, the average moviegoer almost always remains emotionally detached and distant from her character and what should be an exciting plan.

    In addition, and unlike other French farcical efforts, such as Molière's "Tartuffe," this film isn't the kind that will deliver big belly laughs. Instead, it elicits more of an amused recognition of a vindictive woman's efforts and the sly plan she slowly unveils.

    Tony award winning director Des McAnuff ("Big River"), working from a screenplay adaption by Lynn Siefert ("Cool Runnings") and Susan Tarr, has made a decent cinematic debut with this picture. The period costumes, the superb production design, and the lively score all lend the correct atmosphere to the film.

    At times, however, the actors -- despite the overall good performances -- feel more just like actors playing parts than real, flesh and blood characters. Of course, French period farces aren't known for their realistically portrayed characters, so that's only a minor objection and isn't much of an overall distraction.

    Decent, but not great, this lightweight film could have benefitted from involving the audience to a greater degree and by utilizing a more cleverly wicked sense of humor and retribution. While we "admire" what occurs and "appreciate" the effort, it's nothing so sensational that you'll go home and tell the neighbors about the clever scheme you've just witnessed. Even so, the film and the performances contained within still manage to be fairly enjoyable, and thus we give "Cousin Bette" a 6 out of 10.

    Here's a quick look at the film's content. Female and (more limited) male nudity occurs in several scenes. Mostly consisting of bare butts, one scene does show bare breasts, and some nudity does occur in a briefly seen sexual encounter. Profanity is rather limited (1 "s" word and a few others), but several violent encounters do leave one person dead and two others injured from gunshot wounds. Obviously, comical bad attitudes abound, but beyond that and some mainly social drinking, most of the other categories are relatively void of any major objectionable material. Even so -- and as always -- you may want to look more carefully through the listings to see for yourself.

  • Bette drinks champagne.
  • Wenceslas secretly drinks Bette's wine.
  • Hector and Wenceslas drink brandy.
  • Wine is served with dinner.
  • Bette, Hector, Crevel and others drink at a dance.
  • Wenceslas and others drink wine.
  • We see people on the street who drink.
  • People drink at a financial lender's office.
  • Jenny drinks in several scenes.
  • Crevel and others drink in a club.
  • Although we don't explicitly see it, and neither bloody nor gory, we do hear a man urinating on the street.
  • Crevel's scalp is bloody and Hector has a small, bloody bullet hole in his leg after a pistol duel.
  • A person who's been shot has blood run from their mouth, and later we see the corpse in a morgue with a small bullet hole in the chest.
  • Nearly everyone treats Bette like a subordinate or lower class person. In return, she sets into motion an elaborate revenge scheme where she manipulates others and tells them lies to make her plan work.
  • Hector had both for having an affair with Jenny while married.
  • Jenny has something of a temperamental and spoiled attitude toward others.
  • Crevel (while proposing to Hortense) offers to pay her two hundred thousand francs for just a glimpse of seeing her naked (she refuses).
  • Although she knows that Bette favors Wenceslas, Hortense sets out to make him hers.
  • Wenceslas develops a bad attitude and spends his art commission without delivering the requested artwork. He also tells Hortense that he's tired of her, her family, and their continually crying infant.
  • Wenceslas has an affair with Jenny while married to Hortense.
  • A financial lender threatens to kill Victorin and his family if they don't repay their loan.
  • Bette shatters Wenceslas' sculpture and blames the damage on Hortense. She also takes money from Crevel, promising to give it to Hortense, but she doesn't although she later tells her that she gave it to Wenceslas.
  • Some may take offense to a burlesque show where several women, dressed as nuns, turn around and display their bare butts.
  • A character intends to shoot another, but a third accidentally steps in the way and is fatally shot.
  • Rifles: Carried by soldiers in several scenes and fired by others in later ones.
  • Pistols: Used by Hector and Crevel in a duel, and carried by an old family member.
  • Pistol: Shot at a person with murderous intent, but the wrong person is killed.
  • Canons/Explosives: Heard being fired/exploding in several scenes.
  • Phrases: "Hell hole," "Idiot," "Shut up," and "Whore."
  • Bette discovers that Wenceslas was trying to kill himself by asphyxiation from stove fumes.
  • A man urinates on the street (heard, but not explicitly seen).
  • Crevel and Hector have a duel with pistols, and a shot grazes Crevel's scalp and another hits Hector in his leg.
  • None.
  • A few scenes have just a bit of suspenseful music in them.
  • None.
  • At least 1 "s" word, 3 damns, 1 ass, and 2 uses of "My God" and "For God's sakes" and 1 use each of "Oh God," "Good God" and "Oh my God" as exclamations.
  • We see a woman's cleavage at a funeral.
  • We see most of Jenny's bare butt in several different stage costumes she wears in different scenes.
  • Crevel (while proposing to Hortense) offers to pay her two hundred thousand francs for just a glimpse of seeing her naked (she refuses).
  • We see several hookers on the streets and in the alleys, but little action other than seductive stares and gestures.
  • Wenceslas touches Hortense's belly, suggesting that they've had sex and she's pregnant -- and months later we see that they have had a baby.
  • Jenny occasionally shows some cleavage in the different outfits she wears. We also see another woman's cleavage as a financial lender drops coins into it.
  • We see Jenny's bare breasts as she poses for one of Wenceslas' sculptures.
  • Hector visits Jenny who's surprised to see him. As he kisses her, however, she makes many pleasured sounds (moaning) and we then see Crevel appear from under her dress (implying oral sex).
  • Wenceslas and Jenny kiss with some heavy breathing on her part. She shows a lot of cleavage and he spreads chocolate across her chest. Moments later, we see his bare, chocolate-covered butt as he lies nude between her legs on a bed (she's still wearing a small outfit, but both are covered in chocolate).
  • We see the bare butts of several women on stage during a performance.
  • Hector, Wenceslas and others occasionally smoke cigars.
  • Crevel twice snorts tobacco from his wrist.
  • The family's mother dies and there's a brief funeral scene (but very little prolonged grieving from any family members).
  • Seeking revenge on those who've wronged you in the past.
  • Duels with pistols (and how they were done in the past, but aren't a great idea nowadays).
  • The French Revolution (the brief background element of this story).
  • We occasionally hear some far-off sounds of war (explosions), but don't see anything.
  • Hortense lightly hits Crevel with her hand fan.
  • Bette throws a tea cup (or its saucer) across the room and into the wall in anger.
  • Crevel and Hector have a duel using pistols, with a shot grazing Crevel's scalp and another hitting Hector in his leg.
  • A financial lender threatens to kill Victorin and his family if they don't repay their loan.
  • Hortense throws a dinner plate to the floor, shattering it.
  • Bette shatters Wenceslas' sculpture and blames the damage on Hortense.
  • Wenceslas smacks Bette after she calls Jenny a "whore."
  • A character intends to shoot another, but a third accidentally steps in the way and is fatally shot.
  • A scene during the French Revolution shows people looting, one firing a gun, others throwing rocks and a burning carriage (as well as the sound of canon fire).

  • Reviewed June 19, 1998

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